Three IndyCar drivers who need rebound season in 2019

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – As the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season begins with Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, there are several big-name drivers and one former champion who are in need of a rebound season after a disappointing 2018 campaign.

These are all drivers who remain IndyCar stars, but their trips to victory lane or success in the standings fell far short of their own expectations last season.

At the top of that list is Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud.

The 2016 IndyCar Series champion dominated the series that season with five wins, eight podiums and eight poles. He led 406 laps in ’16 and realized his career dream of winning a championship.

He had another fine season in ’17, with two victories (including a runaway in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway), six podiums and one pole. He finished second in the standings behind Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden but served notice that his strong finish was setting him up for another championship run in ’18.

But that promise quickly turned to disappointment last year for the likeable and popular driver from France.

He was winless with two podiums and no poles. He led just 31 laps and finished sixth in the standings.

Pagenaud prefers to look ahead to this season, rather than discuss the disappointment of 2018 as he prepares for the season-opener on the streets of St. Petersburg.

“I’ve done that, and I’m focused on the now,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports.com. “I’m not dwelling on the past or going back to there. Right now, it’s about a reset and looking for a fresh start and attack with a fresh mind. I’m not looking at 2018 anymore; I’m on to 2019.

“It’s about being focused on the moment. The goal now is to look forward, think forward and attack St. Pete, maximize that race, extract the best out of everything. The winter preparation with the team, they are always trying to get better. The evolution of the car has me super excited.”

Pagenaud still has all of the pieces to have a rebound season. He drives for Team Penske, the most successful team in IndyCar Series history. He has one of the top race engineers in the business with Ben Bretzman. And he has Team Penske general manager Kyle Moyer as his race strategist.

Team Penske is the cornerstone team for Chevrolet, and it’s a team that is constantly developing its race car. That’s enough to make the 34-year-old Frenchman capable of having a rebound season.

“If we’re not competitive, we don’t belong in this business,” Pagenaud said. “That’s why I’m excited to be a part of this team.

“It’s very impressive how this team tackles things.”

Another driver who needs a rebound is Graham Rahal at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Rahal just turned 30 on Jan. 4 and notched five of his six career victories between 2015-2017. But last season, the Ohio native (who is married to former NHRA star Courtney Force) went winless with one podium and no poles. He led just 29 laps and finished eighth in the standings.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better,” Rahal said. “If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough, and we know that.”

Rahal’s team has strengthened its engineering department with the addition of Allen McDonald.

“He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year,” Rahal said of McDonald. “He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

The third member of this list actually won a race in 2018, but he also failed to qualify for the 103rdIndianapolis 500. That’s Canadian James Hinchcliffe, who drove to victory on the short oval at Iowa Speedway in July, helping make up for not making the field of 33 at the Indy 500.

That was the highlight for Hinchliffe, who had one other podium finish (Barber Motorsports Park in April). He had an average start of 9.0 and an average finish of 10.1.

He ended the season 10th in the standings.

Add it all up, and Hinchcliffe had good reason to want to move into 2019 and put 2018 in his rear-view mirror.

“Thank God that year is over,” Hinchcliffe said. “Two-thousand-eighteen was very much a roller-coaster for our team specifically. Any time you go through adversity like that, whether it is what happened at Indy or what happened with Robbie Wickens (his teammate and boyhood friend who suffered serious injuries in a crash at Pocono Raceway on Aug 19), there is a huge element of team bonding that comes out of that. I think the group grows stronger and grows closer whenever you face those situations.

“As a result, we are a stronger and closer group than we have ever been. Everyone on the team is excited to hit the track this weekend and, we are excited to see where it all shakes out.”

Hinchcliffe failed to make the 33-car field for the 102ndIndianapolis 500. His first qualification attempt was too slow to make the race and after he was bumped from the lineup, his car didn’t get through the tech line in time to make another run to get into the field.

It was stunning that the former Indy 500 pole winner did not make the field. Hinchcliffe did the right thing by not buying his way into the field with a car that made the lineup.

On Indianapolis 500 race day, Hinchcliffe was a spectator.

“The reality set in pretty hard when everyone else was on track and we weren’t,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was tough, but adversity applies directly to that situation. We went through our best stretch of the season right after that.

“We know what we would and wouldn’t do differently when we got back to Indy this year.”

Hinchcliffe has many factors working in his favor to make this a rebound season. He has the Honda engine, and Arrow Schmidt Peterson has shown the ability to develop a fast race car at specific tracks on the schedule. What the team needs to do in 2019 is provide Hinchcliffe with a car that is consistently fast on more tracks on the circuit.

The 32-year-old from Oakville, Ontario, remains one of IndyCar’s most popular drivers. He is fully capable of returning to winning form in 2019.

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.